Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review #1,289: 'High Sierra' (1941)

It may be difficult to believe now, but there was once a time when Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart played second-fiddle to a bigger star, usually lumped with the role of deadbeat gangster or short-fused psychopath. In movies like Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and this, High Sierra, he find-tuned himself into the fast-talking leading man he would later become in the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With High Sierra, his name appeared below that of the magnificent Ida Lupino, but the film starts and ends with Bogart, and he appears in near enough every scene. He plays Roy 'Mad Dog' Earle, a career criminal freshly sprung from prison who soon realises that his generation of the respectable, honourable gangster is quickly dying out.

After serving eight years for armed robbery, Roy receives a governor's pardon arranged by his old boss Big Mac (Donald MacBride). He is to use his experience and expertise to oversee a heist of a swanky new Californian resort hotel, and heads into the country to hook up with his new crew. On his way into the mountains, Roy meets the young and pretty Velma (Joan Leslie), and decides to use the money stolen from the hotel to pay for an operation to correct her clubfoot, and win her affections in the process. Only his new team-mates Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis) are young, brash and green, and inside man Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) can't be trusted to keep his mouth shut. The only saving grace is Babe's sort-of girlfriend Marie (Lupino), who seems to be the only one of Roy's new rag-tag gang of thieves who can be trusted. She falls in love with the old-school Roy, and after the robbery naturally goes wrong when somebody gets shot, the two must flee into the hills and live as fugitives.

Director Raoul Walsh, working with a script by John Huston and W.R. Burnett, seems to have believed that both the gangster and the gangster movie were slowly dying out back in 1941. This isn't true of course, as gangster films are just as popular today as they have ever been, but this air of melancholy helps distinguish High Sierra from the countless other genre pictures of the era. Lupino and Bogart are both superb as the damaged, lonely criminals. Roy has his heart set on the younger Velma, who represents everything he isn't and never will be, while failing to realise that Marie may actually be the woman he's looking for. Only Marie is just as broken as Roy, and the ageing gangster is looking to make a clean break and a fresh start. When the subjects of gangster movies and film noir crop up, High Sierra doesn't tend to get mentioned much, but it's a terrific and often gripping crime drama, with an engrossing romance at its very core.

Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

High Sierra (1941) on IMDb

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